By Shelley A. Sackett
Finding one’s seat (a folding beach chair) for Dorset Theatre Festival’s world première of “Queen of the Night” at Southern Vermont Art Center’s rustic plein-air stage is like entering a fairy forest world where reality and theater blend. Night creatures are everywhere — by design piped in over the sound system, and by Mother Nature in the woods, open field and air that are the outdoor playhouse. As dusk fades to night, the stars complement the strung overhead lights to create a magical haven far removed from the day’s blaring headlines and latest COVID statistics.
The efficient and effective campsite set, designed by landscape gardeners Justin and Christopher Swader, blends into its organic setting. All the natural world is indeed this play’s intimate stage, and the audience is palpably grateful to be part of it. What could possibly go wrong on a night like this? By the time Tyler (Leland Fowler) and his father Stephen (Danny Johnson) amble onto the “stage” and begin to pitch their tents, it feels like we should jump up, welcome them to the neighborhood and offer to help them set up.
This father and son, however, are not simply taking a break from their Houston lives to spend three peaceful nights camping in a nearby state park. They have brought more baggage than their camping gear and a mile-long laundry list of issues that both unite and divide them. “Ty” is young, black, semi-employed and flamboyantly gay. For his first night in the woods, he shows up in orange short shorts and a black floral, lacy top. L.L. Bean he is not (thanks to Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s bold and fun costumes). He loves city life, gay bars, vamping, prancing and channeling Celine Dion at the top of his talented lungs. He worries about bad cell service and being eaten by bears. He is in constant motion and we are drawn to his physicality like a moth to a flame.
Stephen, on the other hand, is steady and solid, a reliable and dependable employee and family man. Think of a 63-year-old man with James Earl Jones’ octogenarian gravitas. He inhales the campsite with reverence and relief. He pays attention to nature with serious religiosity. He is the obvious yin to his son’s yang; and yet, as the play unfolds, we will see how these opposite and contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent. By the end, they actually give rise to and liberate each other as they interrelate.
The presenting reason for this father-son camping trip to their longtime stomping grounds is the impending remarriage of Ty’s mother, which both will attend. They are navigating difficult waters — Ty and his more successful corporate lawyer brother Marshall are trying to be there for both parents without making hurting either; Stephen admits he still loves his (ex-) wife. The weekend is meant to clear the air and reset their clock, to help them reconnect in the way they did when Ty was a young Boy Scout and he and his father would go camping, in this very spot, just the two of them.
The trouble is that they each have very different memories of those trips, and of just about everything else during Ty’s childhood. Stephen wanted to make Ty tough, independent and resourceful. All Ty wanted was to feel his father’s love and acceptance of him, just the way he was.
Over the course of the 90-minute intermission-less production, we witness the erosion of years of hurt, disappointments and missed opportunities as the two let down their guard and act more like buddies than adversaries. Stephen confesses that he has been laid off from his job and that he has been seeing a therapist. He’s changed. He’s sorry. He wants to be close to his son, to undo the damage he had no idea he caused. “You’re my missing piece,” he tells Ty. “I need you.”
Ty acknowledges his frailty and insecurity, his sadness and longing for paternal praise and love. His veneer of gaiety barely camouflages a melancholy so deep that he reflects on his desire to die alone in the woods at night.
tate uses this broken relationship as a platform from which to tackle a bunch of big-ticket themes: being Black; being gay; being a man; being a Black gay man; being accepted; being accepting; unconditional love; self-love, self-hatred, family dynamics, to name just a few. While his dialogue has moments of sharp insight and laugh-out-loud humor, it often feels preachy and spread too thin over too many issues. Some lines feel injected out of nowhere just to make a point, never a help to a two-handed play.
To the script’s rescue, however, is the spectacular acting of the two leads, reason enough to see the production (and anything else these two may appear in).
Danny Johnson brings an elegant sobriety to the father, Stephen. His raspy melodious voice, cadence and spot-on phrasing imbue his character with humility, decency and authenticity, bring true life to a role that could have been easily become two-dimensional. Leland Fowler brings equal parts joie de vivre and soul-crushing heartache to Ty, miraculously keeping the character light and accessible.
A cursory search reveals that Queen of the Night has many meanings, including the villain in “The Magic Flute,” a white night-blooming cactus flower and, slangily, a flamboyant and promiscuous gay man. It’s the operatic aria reference that resonates most with me, with its message that only those who embrace love and forgiveness are worthy to be considered human. These two are indeed all too human beings, dealing with their perceptions of who they are and who they want to be, starting with their roles as father and son.
‘Queen of the Night’ – Written by travis tate. Directed by Raz Golden. Scenic Design by Christopher and Justin Swader; Lighting Design by Yuki Nakase Link; Sound Design by Megumi Katayama; Costume Design by Fabian Fidel Aguilar. Presented by Dorset Theatre Festival at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, Vermont through September 4.
For tickets and information, call 802-867-2223, ext. 101 or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org